Lessons in bombing

Actors-turned-director are wreaking mediocrity on an undeserving 21st T oronto International Film Festival. Round-up by Denis Seguin
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The Independent Culture
When Mel Gibson accepted the Oscar for Best Director last March, no one could have anticipated the glut of actor-directed films pulsing down the pipeline. Cannes saw debuts from Al Pacino (Looking for Richard), Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge) and Angelica Huston (Bastard out of Carolina) but the spigot seems to be at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Halfway through, the 21st event has seen world premieres of debut films by Kevin Spacey, Matthew Broderick and Kevin Bacon, and a second from Emilio Estevez; still to come are first films from Armin Mueller- Stahl, Cher, Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci and Tom Hanks.

In the crowded press conference salons, other actors were pressed to admit that they too were aspiring auteurs. At the seance for Spacey's debut, Albino Alligator, its featured players Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway both thought that it sounded like a good idea. Well, yes and no.

Albino Alligator plays like a low-calorie substitute for The Usual Suspects. The plot sounds promisingly complex - a trio of inexpert hoods (headed by Dillon) are caught in the wrong dragnet while a shadowy figure looms in their unknowing midst - yet the flavour is wanting. Holing up in a seedy bar, the three men take hostages - among them Dunaway's stalwart barmaid - as the cops close in. Dunaway and Dillon credited Spacey an "actor's director" but it's more a case of "actor's actor". Spacey sets up the siege too soon, leaving his caged performers to eat the scenery while his strongest, Joe Mantegna, is left outside to play the coffee- chugging flatfoot. Still, it's a better film than most of the product extruded by the studios this past summer.

Matthew Broderick has a harder time of it. In Infinity, he plays physicist Richard Feynman, the bongo-playing Nobel Prize winner whose curiosity in how and why things work was matched by his irreverence for scientific institutions - a sort of Ferris Bueller of the Manhattan Project. The concept is strong without being too ambitious: concentrate on Feynman's early years as he enters the race for the Bomb and its moral hangover. But Broderick and his screenwriting mom, Patricia, imbue the role with an agonized - and agonizing - dignity, as though Feynman knew his young wife (Patricia Arquette) was doomed long before he met her. The film's dead before she is.

Bombs are the raison d'etre of Trinity and Beyond, less a documentary than a compilation of footage from US and Soviet nuclear tests. The zesty mushrooms bloom to the stirring orchestration of the Moscow Symphony as William Shatner provides a curiouslypuffy narration.

The Atomic Age is elsewhere revisited in the form of Swingers, a retrograde ensemble piece that will probably start a run on dry vermouth and pearl onions. Shunned by Sundance, the film's producers invited the mini-majors to their cast-and-crew screening and started a bidding war won, as usual, by Miramax; the film premiered at Telluride and then moved on to Venice and Toronto. Writer and star Jon Favreau has blended Rat Pack staccato and basketball lingo to create a new cocktail vernacular. His mug should be gracing newsagents around the time Londoners start replacing "You're brill" with "You're money."

Being the son of a famous director could be a curse, but Nick's Cassavetes's Unhook the Stars is a marvel from every angle. His mother, Gena Rowlands, is as good as she's ever been as an empty-nest widow who falls for the little boy next door and then for the boy's mother (Marisa Tomei). It's strictly platonic: an exquisitely realised relationship that confirms the salutary effect of a kind heart without the maudlin conventions. Cassavetes proves himself unafraid to play with narrative rhythm, setting the film off on journeys that defy the flow and are more welcome for it. Gerard Depardieu, who shepherded the project, makes an unlikely appearance as a Quebecois truck driver.

It's a step-up from his appearance as Bogus, the imaginary friend of a fair-haired cherub left all alone in the world except for a long-lost step-aunt who happens to be Whoopi Goldberg. The director, Norman Jewison, has local-hero credibility in Toronto which explains why Bogus premiered here. It's the worst sort of bloated feel-goodery and will fail utterly.